Review: ‘The Way Back’ (2020), starring Ben Affleck

March 6, 2020

by Carla Hay

Ben Affleck (pictured in front, at far right) in “The Way Back” (Photo by Richard Foreman)

“The Way Back” (2020)

Directed by Gavin O’Connor

Culture Representation: Taking place in the beach city of San Pedro, California, the drama “The Way Back” has a racially diverse (white, Latino, African American) cast of characters representing the middle class.

Culture Clash: An alcoholic man, who was a star basketball player in high school, returns to his alma mater as a basketball coach while battling his addiction.

Culture Audience: “The Way Back” will appeal mostly to people who want to see stories about addiction or basketball (and there might be some curiosity over how the story compares to star Ben Affleck’s real-life personal problems), but the movie doesn’t show anything that hasn’t been done before in TV movies of the week.

Janina Gavankar and Ben Affleck in “The Way Back” (Photo by Richard Foreman)

Not to be confused with director Peter Weir’s Soviet gulag-escape drama “The Way Back” (which was released in 2010), the 2020 release of “The Way Back” (directed by Gavin O’Connor) is a drama about an entirely different struggle: alcoholism and coping with the death of a child. Ben Affleck plays Jack Cunningham, a lonely middle-aged guy who’s living a dead-end, self-destructive existence in San Pedro, California. In the beginning of the story, he has a job as a day laborer in construction. When he’s not on the job, he gets drunk at local bars before he heads home, where he lives by himself. Jack is obviously in a lot of emotional pain, but the story unfolds in layers over why he’s in turmoil and why he’s become an alcoholic.

On one of the many days that he’s woken up with a hangover, Jack unexpectedly gets a call to meet with Father Edward Devine (played by John Aylward), the head of Bishop Hayes High School, a Catholic school that is Jack’s alma mater. Father Edward asks Jack if he would like to be the head coach of the school’s basketball team. He’s up front in telling Jack that the team loses almost all of its games, but they could really use guidance from Jack, who was a star basketball player at the school from 1993 to 1995. It’s also the last period of time when the Bishop Hayes basketball team made it to the national finals.

Jack’s immediate reaction is to say no, but Father Edwards pleads with Jack to think it over and call him the next day with his decision. Before he makes that call, Jack spends some time rehearsing the words he’ll say to decline the offer. The next thing you know, Jack is being introduced to the team as the new head coach.

The assistant coach is Dan Espinosa (played by Al Madrigal), an algebra teacher at the school. Dan graduated from Bishop Hayes High School a few years after Jack did. When Dan was a basket player in high school, he idolized Jack. Dan wasn’t a very good player back then (he mostly stayed on the bench), so he knows his limitations and is excited about working with Jack.

“The Way Back” has two very different trailers. The first trailer, which is the more accurate one, shows how much of a screw-up alcoholic Jack is and how he happens to coach a basketball team. The second trailer takes more of a “feel good” sports angle by playing up the basketball aspects of the movie. There are some thrilling basketball scenes in the film, but the movie is really about Jack’s turbulent journey as an alcoholic.

During the course of the movie, viewers find out that Jack has been separated from his wife Angela (whom he calls “Ange”) for more than a year. Jack has been an alcoholic for several years, but his marriage reached a breaking point after the 2017 death of their only child, an 8-year-old son named Michael. (How he died is revealed in the movie, and it’s an emotional trigger when something similar happens to someone on Angela’s side of the family.)

Jack’s main emotional support system comes from his younger sister Beth (played by Michaela Watkins) and her family, which consists of her husband and pre-teen son and daughter. Jack’s mother has recently moved in with Beth and her family. Over a Thanksgiving dinner that turns argumentative, long-simmering resentments come to the surface. Jack is somewhat jealous that Beth is doing better in life than he is, and it adds to his feelings of self-loathing. Beth shows concern over Jack’s obvious drinking problem, but he thinks she’s overreacting and being a nag. He’s also annoyed because Angela has recently called Beth, not Jack, to check up on Jack to see how he’s doing.

Eventually, Angela (played by Janina Gavankar) meets with Jack in person to tell him news that he wasn’t expecting to hear: She has a new man in her life (his name is Nick), and her separation from Jack is probably going to lead to divorce. Jack is upset, but he channels his frustrations into his new job as a basketball coach.

As the team’s new coach, Jack is abrasive and prone to cursing a lot. He gets reprimanded multiple times for his foul-mouthed, short-tempered behavior by the team’s chaplin, Father Mark Whelan (played by Jeremy Radin), who’s there for spiritual guidance and to make sure that the team and the coaches follow the school’s moral code of conduct.

There are many expected scenes in the movie of Jack doing the “shouting coach” thing. There are also some basketball scenes using borderline hokey freeze-frames and slow-motion shots that give this film a “TV movie of the week” tone. It’s during the quieter moments, when Jack is alone and facing his demons, that the movie has more emotional resonance.

Under Jack’s leadership, the team predictably starts to win games (as seen in the movie’s trailers), but this isn’t a basketball movie drama like “Hoosiers,” “Blue Chips” or “Glory Road” (all featuring “tough love” coaches), where the biggest thing at stake is a basketball championship. In “The Way Back,” the biggest thing at stake is Jack’s physical and emotional health. As such, the basketball players’ individual personalities aren’t given as much screen time as you might think they would get.

There are some standout players on the team. Brandon Durrett (played by Brandon Wilson), a withdrawn loner, is the most talented player and Jack’s favorite. As the team starts to win more games, Brandon comes out of his shell and gains confidence. He starts to think that he might have a shot at a college scholarship and possibly the big leagues of the National Basketball Association.

However, Brandon’s father Russ (played by T.K. Carter) never goes to see his son play and isn’t very supportive of Brandon’s basketball dreams. When Jack goes to visit Russ at his shrimp fishery job to encourage him to support Brandon, Russ brushes Jack off and tells Jack that basketball is a long-shot, short-lived career that will only disappoint Brandon. He wants to see his son succeed in a job where he won’t be considered “washed-up” by the time he’s in his 40s.

Other players on the team whose personalities are distinct are Marcus Parrish (played by Melvin Gregg), the team’s cocky showoff; sharpshooter Kenny Dawes (played by Will Ropp), who’s a ladies’ man; Chubbs Hendricks (played by Charles Lott Jr.), an overweight guy who’s predictably the team jokester; Sam Garcia (played by Fernando Luis Vega), the guy most likely to give pep talks to the other players; and Bobby Freeze (played by Ben Irving), who’s a solid team player.

In doing publicity for “The Way Back,” Affleck has given candid interviews about the parallels between him and the Jack Cunningham character. Over the past several years, Affleck has been open about his addiction issues (alcoholism and gambling), which were among the reasons for his messy divorce from actress Jennifer Garner, the mother of their three kids. During filming of “The Way Back,” Affleck publicly had a relapse in his alcoholism. And “The Way Back” director O’Connor says that Affleck had a breakdown during a scene in the movie where Jack meets with Angela and confronts his issues. The scene got so emotionally raw, says O’Connor, that he had to cut most of it out of the film.

Although that scene between Jack and Angela is emotional, it’s a lot more muted than what it could be. It didn’t have to be melodramatic, but it’s not a moment where people in the audience will gasp or get so emotionally moved that they’ll start crying—a reaction that happened a lot in the big confrontation scene between the estranged spouses in the 2019 film “Marriage Story,” writer/director Noah Baumbach’s award-winning divorce drama.

Affleck does a very good job in the role, but the movie’s weakest link is that it’s a predictable script (written by Brad Ingelsby) that handles the subject matter in a way that’s been done so many times before in movies and TV shows. That predictability is one of the reasons why it might be difficult to convince people to pay full price to see this movie in a theater. People might be more inclined to wait until “The Way Back” can be seen on a small screen. However, “The Way Back” isn’t a bad way to spend a couple of hours watching a serviceable drama. It’s just not the most essential film about basketball coaches or alcoholism.

Warner Bros. Pictures released “The Way Back” in U.S. cinemas on March 6, 2020.

UPDATE: Because of the widespread coronavirus-related closures of movie theaters worldwide, Warner Bros. Home Entertainment has moved up the digital and VOD release of “The Way Back” to March 24, 2020.